Good And Evil

“We need more good people with guns to protect us from the bad people with guns.” — National Rifle Association.

“There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” — Shakespeare

“The line between good and evil passes through every human heart” — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The concepts of good and bad or good and evil are entirely dependent on context. Nothing is good or bad of its nature; the same phenomenon may be good under some circumstances and bad under others; it all depends on what the desired end is. By definition something is good if it leads towards the desired end, bad if it leads away from it. It is possible to derive benefits even from events that seem to be purely evil. We are able to cure neurological diseases today as a result of the ghastly experiments carried out by Dr Mengele in the Nazi death camps. This does not excuse or condone those experiments, but it does point up the difficulties we encounter when we make sweeping moral judgments. 

Good and bad behavior follow the same rule. The same behavior can be considered good or bad according to the circumstances, and the same person can act with good intent or with evil intent at different times and under different circumstances. Mafia leaders who acted with the utmost brutality in their business dealings were often beloved pillars of their communities that local people could go to for help, confident that they would get it. Even describing intent as good or evil is problematic. Everyone at all times wants to do the right thing. Nobody deliberately sets out to what is in his own mind wrong. Whatever he decides to do, he does it because he believes it is right, otherwise he would not do it. This is why appeals to a person’s moral conscience will often fall of deaf ears. An appeal to someone to do what he knows is right depends for its effectiveness on his agreeing with you on what is in fact right. 

A person’s views on what is right and what is wrong depend on a great many factors. Religion, socio-political beliefs and observations, social class, the views of one’s peers, upbringing all have profound effects upon our ideas of right and wrong. Things were simpler in the days when people looked to religion for the answers to moral questions; today we are expected to work it out for ourselves. Little wonder that cult leaders who proclaim with great conviction a set of beliefs gather great followings. Their adherents are seeking certainty in an uncertain world, and are happy to pass on the burden of decision making to someone else. 

This is the great danger of absolutist thinking and teaching. Someone brought up in a religion that claims that it alone preaches the truth, and that all other religions and philosophies are false, learn two distinct things: first that there can be such a thing as a universal exclusive truth, and second that their particular religion has it. The danger is that they will discover the falsity of the second, while still believing the first. This makes them prime victims for cults and extremist political groups. They simply substitute one false belief for another. In many cases their adherence to the new beliefs, being, as they believe, a conscious choice (though that judgment is highly questionable) will be even stronger than to the old ones.

What all of this means is that there are no good people and bad people, there are just people who act in all kinds of ways under different circumstances. Some of these ways are classified by society as evil because they run counter to the aims of society. All of us have the capability of behaving in these ways; fortunately most of us are not put in circumstances that cause us to do so. People do not like to admit this to themselves, so they Tell themselves that it was caused by something inherent in that person, that they themselves do not have.

Even those of us who do recognize that we all have the potential for such acts often believe that we ourselves have sufficient self-control that we could never actually carry them out. Again, many are right, but even for them there is some set of circumstances under which they will lose control. It will be different for everyone, but we must always be alert to the danger. All of us have the capacity for that great disinhibitor, anger. Our lives these days give us many opportunities for anger, both chronic and acute. We are not good at properly directing our anger at its true cause, so we take it out on often innocent bystanders. When someone displays anger towards us we tend to get angry in our turn, and so the fire spreads. Anger often turns to rage, which enables us to ignore our inhibitions against antisocial behavior.

These are uncomfortable thoughts for many people. They prefer to think of school shooters and the like as “other” in some fundamental way. If we can just get rid of that element, they think, then we can be rid of the problem. Unfortunately it does not work that way. You cannot draw a line to divide the good from the evil; all of us have the potential for either.

Public Health Care

We hear a lot about the cost of health care, when what is actually being described is the price of health care, an altogether different thing. The idea that a fair price is what a willing buyer is prepared to pay to a willing seller assumes that if the seller asks an outrageous price, the buyer is free to walk away. If the seller has the only drug or procedure that will keep the buyer alive, he is not free to walk away. He has to pay whatever price is asked. There is no meaningful competition in the health care industry.

The so-called health care industry is in the business of trafficking in human life. If you do not have the money to pay them to keep you alive, they will let you die. If you are in severe intractable pain and do not have the money to buy their drugs, they will let you suffer in agony. They are permitted to charge whatever the market will bear. What will you pay to stay alive? Everything you have, if necessary.

Even the Medicare system is forbidden by law from negotiating prices with the drug companies. The one organization which is in the position of being able to deal with the drug companies on a relatively level playing field is forbidden to do so. They must accept the “market” price derived from the process of extortion described above.

I am constantly amazed that so many people seem to prefer the notion of privatized health care to a public system. The executives of a publicly traded corporation are obliged by law to act in the way that will best benefit their shareholders at all times. Nothing takes precedence over this. A publicly traded health care corporation is not in business to provide health care; that is a side effect. They are in business to provide as much profit as possible to their shareholders. This means that the person deciding what treatment a patient is going to get is going to make the decision that best benefits the corporation, not the patient. It also means that the extortion is not just a morally reprehensible policy, it is dictated by law.

A publicly operated health care provider, on the other hand, such as is found all over the rest of the industrialized world, exists to provide health care to the patient. Its employees will make the decision that best benefits the patient. 

Which would you prefer? To have your medical decisions made by someone who is paid to deny you care if they can find any reason to do so, or by someone whose job it is to make and keep you healthy? 

The “Undeserving” Poor

Homelessness is a “hot topic” right now, and opinions on the subject appear daily in the papers, online discussion groups and in the coffee shop. In any given conversation the two (or more) sides are often really addressing different aspects of a complex problem. To arrive at any agreement we must first know whether we are trying to end homelessness itself, for instance, or to help those currently homeless, or to clean up the streets and feel safer. Each of these problems will suggest a different kind of solution. 

We also have to acknowledge that poverty is a positive feedback loop. In this case positive is not a good thing. It means that the poorer a person gets, the harder it becomes for them to pull themselves out of poverty. Once you are homeless, life becomes increasingly difficult, and the slope is slippery. In this respect our society is unique among organisms (for society is in fact an organism). All other organisms are self-healing. When an organism detects that some part is ailing, it sends more resources to that part to help it get better. If we injure our bodies, blood flow is increased to the injured area. Our society, on the other hand, reacts to ailing members by withholding resources from them. 

The aspect I would like to address here is the issue of what are sometimes called the undeserving poor. There are very few people who would deny that a great many poor people got that way through no fault of their own, and most have no problem with helping these people. Where the disagreement comes is when people see what they see as “their” money being used to help people who, in their estimation, are poor either through some personal failing or through criminal behavior. They even claim that homelessness is a lifestyle choice for some, and that they do not even want to be helped.

Let us deal with this last contention first, as it is relatively simple. First the homeless population has a higher than average incidence of mental illness, which can cause people to express views and preferences that are not in their own self-interest. It is sometimes said that if being crazy didn’t make you homeless, being homeless would make you crazy. These people need a special kind of help, and their views should not be taken as representative of the majority of homeless people.

Others may refuse the kind of help that is offered for a number of quite valid reasons. It may not be the kind of help that is in fact helpful. For instance, food that needs preparation or must be consumed on the spot may not be useful to them at the time it is offered. Shelters have very restrictive rules about when you have to be out in the morning and what time you can get there in the evening, which may not be practicable for them. They may be hard for them to get to and from. There are countless reasons why someone might not be able to accept the particular form of help offered. This does not mean that there is no possible form of help that would be genuinely useful to them, or that they would reject it if offered. 

It is well nigh impossible to truly understand someone’s situation if you have not experienced it. There is a French expression that translates to “to understand all is to forgive all.” If you could truly know what is was to be that person, you would understand why they were where they are. All of us are the products of our genetics and our environment, neither of which was under our control. We talk of people making bad choices, but what does this really mean? We make choices based on our assessment of what will benefit us. If our assessment tools or our concept of what is in fact beneficial to us are faulty, it is because we are basing them on faulty information. Conversely people who have succeeded have almost universally had someone in their life who has given them good guidance.

Furthermore, what are these bad choices, anyway? Often this turns out to be code for drug taking. This carries several questionable assumptions. First of all poor people cannot afford to buy enough drugs to cause them much harm. A truly debilitating drug habit is very expensive. Homeless people take drugs, certainly, but usually only enough to take the edge off their misery. 

So maybe it was a drug habit that impoverished them in the first place. Using this as a reason to blame them for their situation and refuse help is to say that drug habituation is a moral defect that deserves punishment (in this case the punishment of being deprived of shelter and rejected by society.) Yet if drug habituation is a moral defect this would condemn a large percentage of the population, most of whom are habituated to some drug or more than one. We have not been able to identify any society in history that did not use mind altering substances.

If we are to rationalize refusal to help someone who has fallen on hard times, surely the only acceptable reason is that it was some moral defect that brought them to this state. If some force outside their control impoverished them, we can hardly in good conscience refuse help. Neither can we reasonably condemn them for making stupid decisions. Intelligence, or the ability to make wise decisions, is not evenly distributed in the population. Certainly we can learn to make the best of what we are given, but some are just dealt a weak hand in life. Can we therefore blame them for failing in the system?

So, you might ask, is there no such thing as personal responsibility? Are we to forgive everybody any kind of behavior on the grounds that it was just the way they were brought up? I am not making that argument here; it is a complex topic that deserves its own treatment. What I am saying is that first it is not a helpful standard to apply to the choice of whether or not to help the indigent. People qualify for help because they are in need of it; it is that simple. There are no undeserving poor.

Science vs Intuitive Understanding

From an online discussion on

claire ossenbeck wrote:

Every time there is a major earthquake, they come out with some statement that says their clues to understanding have been tossed on the heap and they pretty much have to start anew. Before the North Ridge quake they believed that the faults were not connected to each other. I read this in a science mag. Then after the quake they find that omg, they are connected, quite! Ok, now here am I for years now, an absolute nobody, thinking to myself (purely intuitively) I think that they are connected because it’s just common sense to me and it feels right. It may not have been based on the science of the day, but if science does not understand that which it cannot measure or prove, and is needing to continuously upgrade itself, then where’s the proof that I’m wrong?

Among the many non-experts who thought about earthquakes, and had an intuitive understanding about some aspect of the subject, a certain number thought as you did, and were eventually proved to have been right. However I am sure that there were many who had some other intuitive insight that did not turn out to be right. Which one should we have followed?  Back then, when they had it wrong and you had it right, what would you have had them do?

Should they have said to themselves (and to us) “Claire is quite sure that it is this way, and we should change our views to conform with hers!”? Clearly not, since there are myriad Claires, and they do not all have the same intuitive understanding, yet they are all equally certain.

What they did was what science does: continue to study the matter with as open a mind as they could manage (they are, after all, human, and prone to human weaknesses) and when they accumulated evidence that they were wrong, they changed their views and told us that they had been wrong, and now understood things to work differently than they had thought. Do you ever stop to consider how rare and courageous an act that is, to admit that you have been wrong? Yet that is what science does regularly, as better tests are devised and new theories tested and knowledge is more widely disseminated by communications technology improvements.

I think that perhaps you are under a false impression of what “science” is saying. If you had had the opportunity to talk to a reputable earthquake specialist at the time when the accepted view disagreed with your intuitive sense of what was the truth, he or she would probably have said something like “Well, that is a possibility, and may indeed be true, however the information we have right now seems to indicate otherwise.” Under appropriate circumstances the response might be “Well, what you propose is not impossible, but it has been studied so much with so much agreement that we consider the likelihood very low.” Even then they may turn out to have been mistaken; in almost no case will a reputable and honest scientist claim to know for certain that anything is either definitely right or definitely wrong. However, it is not up to science to prove that you are wrong; if they had to do that for every theory that came along, they would not have time for anything else. If you want to have your theory adopted it is up to you to provide the evidence, not just the assertion, that you are right.

As in all pursuits, there are individual scientists who care more about their ego or reputation than about the truth, but this is not true of science or scientists in general, any more than it is true of doctors or engineers in general, or of medicine or engineering as professions. You are of course quite free to believe that your theory is true and the accepted one false, just as I am sure there were earthquake scientists who also disagreed. Nobody was or is trying to stop you believing that. The difference is that the views of “science” (as opposed to the views of individual scientists) represents the distilled knowledge, tested and verified, of many people who have studied the matter. Even then as we have seen, they can be wrong. However, unlike people whose views rest solely on faith (and are therefore not really interested in evidence), when presented with new information that checks out, science will change its views. 

So if occasionally science comes around to a point of view you already held, you are allowed a smile of satisfaction, and even a modest boast, but at the same time it is always salutary to remember the ideas you had that did not turn out to be supported by the evidence after all. 

Refuting Libertarianism

Rather than a left-right scale the political spectrum should be seen as an up-down scale. The Republican Party represent the interests of those at the top of the scale, and the Democrats those at the bottom. It is often said that both parties are equally corrupt and beholden to money interests, but I do not believe this to be true. As I see it, each party has an agenda it wishes to promote, and also things it does reluctantly in order to continue to get elected. For the Republican Party what it wishes to do is serve the interests of their wealthy sponsors. What it does reluctantly in order to gain votes is the bare minimum of social programs it can get away with. For the Democrats it is the opposite. What they want to do is the social programs, and what they have to do reluctantly in order to find their campaigns is some of the bidding of the wealthy. So even in the present deplorable system there is a difference that matters between the parties. 

Libertarians, often seen as being on the far right (or on my scale the top) actually do not really fit there. The reason they find common cause with Republicans is because both favor smaller government, but for quite different reasons. Libertarians believe in small government as a central principle, seeing the natural state of people as being rugged individualist as unfettered as possible by the law. Republicans just want to get the law off the backs of their sponsors, so they defund those parts of the government that have oversight over the big money interests. 

The fundamental fallacy of libertarianism is easily demonstrated. One of the universal behaviors common to all of our species is the forming of groups. We are a highly social species, and the idea of a single individual living completely independently without any dependence upon others is almost unheard of. Even in the “wild west” days, the heyday of rugged individualism, they could not have survived, let alone thrived, without the railroads and the Sears Roebuck catalog. We are each a member of countless groups simultaneously: family, congregation, team, work environment, town, county, state, country each claim us as members. Some groups we choose to join, others we are members of willy nilly. Among the latter groups are the various levels of society that we inhabit.

So what does it mean to be a member of a group? What is the nature of our relationship to the group, and to other members of the group? The first and most important thing to understand about all groups is that by their very nature they limit the freedom of action of their members. This is a universal rule of groups of all kinds. In order to gain the benefits of belonging to the group, its members agree to accept limitations on their personal freedom of action.  One might even say that the expression ” a free society” is an oxymoron, as the whole point of society is to limit the freedom of its members. 

In the case of society, the limits on the freedom of action of its members are codified as systems of laws. The more organized and complex a society becomes, and the larger the populations being governed, the more restrictions are needed for society to continue to function. It makes no sense to say, as the Libertarians do, that personal freedom is the ultimate good, and the closer you can get to that the better. Instead we should accept the fact that society is not just useful but necessary, and that we need to seek the optimal balance between the desires of the individual members and the quite legitimate needs of the society.


We say “serving prison time,” which I believe is a phrase that enables us to avoid confronting the truth of what we are doing to our prisoners. I have come to believe that the idea of imprisonment as a routine punishment for all manner of transgressions against the community is a moral outrage. Next to our life itself, our freedom of action and movement is the most precious thing we have, and indeed some would say that without it life itself is worth very little. Yet we debate between locking people away for ten years or fifteen as though there were little to choose between them. We speak blithely of locking people away for the rest of their lives, with not even the remotest conception of what we are condemning them to. 

It is not simply the deprivation of freedom, though that is in my mind enough alone to condemn the practice, it is also the conditions under which prisoners are kept. They are put almost entirely at the mercy of prison staff, who are hired largely for their “tough” qualities. A kindly, empathetic prison guard will not last long at the job. We have seen from well-known experiments the effect on people of giving them power over others, even in academic laboratory settings. Imagine how bad it can get in real life situations in such places as maximum security prisons. The truth is truly horrific. 

The social purposes supposedly being served by this system are said to be fourfold: rehabilitation, segregation, deterrence and punishment. Cure them of their criminality, put them where they cannot do further harm, and apply sanctions for their criminal behavior that provide serious consequences and by their harshness discourage others from doing similar things. 

Rehabilitation is so little practiced in our prison systems that one might say that the exact reverse is taking place. There may be, it is true, places in the US where genuinely “enlightened” prison methods are being used, though the expression itself seems to me to be an oxymoron, but if so they are very much in the minority. The rest of the system can fairly be described as schools for crime. Universities, in fact. Prisons turn a large proportion of their inmates into lifetime criminals. 

Locking criminals away does indeed prevent them from committing further crimes while they are locked away, but at very great cost. The main problem is that at some point most of them will end up being released. After perhaps decades of harsh inhumane treatment they are turned loose with only whatever possessions they had with them when arrested, and a few dollars. Is it any wonder that they have difficulties readjusting to outside life, or that many of them end up back inside within a short time, sometimes preferring that life to the challenges of freedom. The only thing they know is the criminal life, and the only people they know are criminals. 

Deterrence hinges on the idea that people will avoid crime for fear of the punishment. Increasingly harsh sentences are imposed, often cemented in place by minimum sentencing laws, in pursuit of this aim. Psychological studies, however, seem to show that this is not effective. The likelihood of being caught seems to weigh much more heavily than the fear of punishment; criminals do not expect to be caught, so the severity of the punishment is immaterial to them. Furthermore such considerations do not even come into play when it comes to crimes committed in the heat of the moment, without forethought. They are also of little weight when the crime is truly one of need.

So we are left with punishment. The criminal did a bad thing, and must suffer as a consequence. This (in the absence of the other three) is perhaps the least defensible rationale. If this is indeed the only remaining justification, then the degree of punishment must bear a direct relationship with the harm done by the crime. I would argue that this is almost never the case. Instead prosecutors brag about the number of criminals they have caused to be imprisoned and for how long.  Far from carefully suiting the punishment to the crime (which would require individual examination of the circumstances of each case, and of the circumstances of the criminal) punishment is decided in most cases by a bargaining process between prosecutor and the defense counsel. The vast majority of criminal cases are decided by plea bargaining; not only is the defendant effectively denied the benefit of a jury trial, even the judge plays almost no part except rubber stamping the result.

This is done by charging the defendant with the most serious crimes that the circumstances of the case could possibly justify. The prosecutor does not imagine that he could obtain a conviction from a jury on these charges, that is not the aim. The aim is to frighten the defendant into pleading to a lesser charge that he may not even be guilty of so as not to have to run the risk (however remote) of a conviction on the harsher charges. Ironically in this situation draconian minimum sentences do act as a strong incentive, an incentive to accept a manifestly unjust punishment in order to avoid the risk of an even worse result.

There are many facets to this issue which is the great shame and crime of our society. There is the disgrace of private prisons run for profit. It outrages me that anyone should even require reasons for condemning private prisons; are they not morally unacceptable simply on the face of it? Take all of the evils I have already described, add to them the incentive to operate the entire concern as cheaply as possible and remove even the pretence of accountability imposed by a publicly run system? What could possibly go wrong?

There are the various industries that prey on the prisoners and their families. The private phone companies that charge unconscionable rates for calls. The prison run banking system that charges hefty fees for depositing money into prisoners’ accounts. The prison labor racket where prisoners are paid pennies per hour for work that is sold for regular prices, with most of the profit going to private contractors. 

All these circumstances, and many more that I do not have space for here, combine to make prisoners’ lives almost insupportable. And all of it is on top of what is already the most severe deprivation short of death, the deprivation of freedom. Even if you hold that we should lock people away, is it even good policy to make the conditions so severe? Would we not be better served by a system that really did rehabilitate people? Regardless of whether you think that this is a morally correct thing to do, surely it would be the sensible thing to do. 

Group rights vs individual rights

Written in response to a posting deploring the granting of “special rights” for gays, saying that they should not be singled out for special treatment.

IMO this a straw man argument. Taking gays as an example, it is not the claim of gay rights advocates that gays deserve some special form of protection not available to anyone else. They are saying not that they should be granted rights, but that the rights to which they are already entitled are being denied. Therefore they are not demanding any kind of group rights, but rather the recognition of their individual rights, which they are banding together as a group to promote. I believe this to be also the case with every other rights group I can think of.

So while the writer is correct in saying that our rights are ours as individuals, this is not a valid argument for refusing to consider the claims of gays or blacks or women (for instance) as a class of people whose individual rights are being denied because they are members of that class.